The worrying plunge in food trade comes as Britain marks the seventh anniversary of the referendum result amid growing negativity about Brexit’s impact on the economy.
Meat exports to EU countries – as measured by weight – declined by 42 per cent from December 2020 to March 2023, according to Labour analysis of government trade data.
The shock figures also show a 45 per cent slide in the net mass of fish, crustacean and mollusc exported to Europe over the same period.
Keir Starmer’s party is demanding a new veterinary deal with Brussels to ease the “mountain of red tape” faced by British businesses trading with Britain’s nearest neighbours.
Labour ministers have written to environment secretary Therese Coffey, urging the government to take up the “practical fix” to ease the burden of costly checks which have also caused huge congestion at Dover.
Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, blamed the Tory government for a “perfect storm of negligence which has hurt jobs, rocketed prices and damaged our food security”.
He added: “The Tories have failed at every turn; food producers are saddled with endless red tape and crippling production costs and households are being squeezed on their weekly food shop beyond any limits.”
The weight of meat exports to EU countries fell from just over 56 million kilograms in December 2020, the month prior to the introduction of the checks, to 34.5 million kilograms. Fish, crustacean and mollusc exports fell from just over 27 million kilograms down to 14.7 million kilograms in the same period.
But the government argued that comparing December 2020 export figures, the month before Brexit, with March 2023 – the last available figures – was “misleading”.
A government spokesperson said: “These figures are misleading as export figures are always very high in December due to Christmas demand compared with other months – but growing the economy and supporting businesses to export more of their world class meat and seafood products is a priority for this government.”
They added: “We are continuing to work with businesses to ease any administrative burdens for exports, including towards the digitisation of health certificates, while also backing our fishing communities with £100m to boost growth.”
Food sector chiefs have joined Labour in calling for a UK-EU veterinary agreement to ease trade barriers, since it would remove the need for extra sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on goods.
Business leaders have warned of further pain ahead for Britain’s food retailers, with a costly new set of checks on EU imports kicking in from October – including a fee of up to £43 per consignment of food from the bloc.
The new charge – outlined in a consultation issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – comes alongside separate fees for customs agents and SPS inspections.
Despite ruling out rejoining the single market or customs union, Labour’s foreign secretary David Lammy has hinted that the party’s policy could inch forward to forge closer ties with Brussels.
Mr Lammy told LBC that the idea of a veterinary deal to ease some food trade issues is a “floor not a ceiling” and said he wants “to hear what business has got to say over the coming months”.
Echoing calls for a SPS agreement, British Poultry Council boss Richard Griffiths warned: “The longer the issues with EU trade go on, the harder it will be to address them.”
It comes as former Brussels negotiator Michel Barnier told The Independent that the EU would be willing to thrash out new treaties with the UK in areas like security, defence or development where Boris Johnson “refused to negotiate”.
But Mr Barnier also dismissed suggestions that trade barriers could be resolved without membership of the single market or customs union – dashing the hopes of British businesses that have struggled under the new arrangements.
More than 50 per cent believe that the UK was wrong to leave the EU, according to the latest Deltapoll survey. And only 18 per cent of Leave voters believe it’s been a success, polling for UK in a Changing Europe has found.
On Friday Downing Street rejected the view – shared by former Bank of England governor Mark Carney – that Brexit has helped fuel Britain’s inflation crisis.
Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said: “Brexit has created a huge number of opportunities for the UK and indeed for businesses that are beneficial for the public,” adding that inflation was similar across other European countries.
The government has said its proposed charges of £20 to £43 per food import consignment was needed under the new regime for post-Brexit checks on imports.
“We are currently consulting with the sector and businesses to ensure we take the fairest approach that works for them, while also facilitating the movement of goods into the country and protecting our biosecurity,” said a spokesperson.
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